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I am learning to sing and I am pretty bad at it for now (I sing out of tune).

I was told that a good ear is important to sing well. This makes sense, so I looked for ways to quantify the quality of my musical hearing.

I came across a test that evaluates the smallest interval one can differentiate.

This test was very interesting. I scored 2.0% of a semitone, meaning that I am able to differentiate up to 2 cents.

This got me thinking :

  1. How relevant to singing in tune is this raw ability to hear small intervals?

  2. Are there some statistics on results for this type of tests? Is 2 cents a good or bad natural ability?

  3. I am able to differentiate intervals way below semitones, and yet I can’t sing in tune. So clearly this test does not give the full picture of the raw abilities needed to sing. What other raw abilities are needed to sing in tune? Specifically, is this test the wrong way to measure “good hearing” ?

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  • FWIW, I have significant musical training and experience — including as a singer — and my "best answer" was at 1.8%; however, most everything under about 8% took a great deal of concentration and multiple listens. Even with correct answers, the smallest intervals felt like "best guesses".
    – Aaron
    Apr 25, 2022 at 23:53
  • My 'best' was 3.7%, but so what? When singing, one would try to sing reconisable intervals, mainly in complete tones and semitones, albeit in either 12tet or some other musical intonation. Stick with being able to sing notes in order and in tune that can be checked with, say, piano. Keep recording both.
    – Tim
    Apr 26, 2022 at 7:06
  • Fun test. I wasn't even hesitant until about 5%, but by 4 it was a gut feel & 2.5 was just guesswork. Might have done better in a silent environment, [but that's just to make me feel better about myself ;)) I know I can sing 'in tune' but I'm not sure how relevant this test would be to that. Some of the note intervals between test samples I couldn't have sung without practise. It wasn't exactly a catchy tune.
    – Tetsujin
    Apr 26, 2022 at 12:15
  • Even if your sense of pitch is good you still need to train your voice. 3.7% for me. No surprise, I rate my sense of pitch at garbage level. How do you know you sing out of pitch? Can you hear it yourself or does someone else tell you? Apr 27, 2022 at 16:00

1 Answer 1

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A typically quoted frequency resolution of human ear, in the range from several hundreds of Hz to several kHz is a fraction of percent in frequency, which corresponds to some 5–10 cents. This corresponds to difference between frequencies activating consecutive hair cells in inner ear.

A pure tone activates several neighboring hair cells, with various intensity. This allows people with ear training to further improve pitch recognition.

Some comments about interpretation of the test

  1. Results of 5–10 % (which I presume corresponds to cents) in the test are expected for a healthy human, and perhaps below 5% for a musician.
  2. The test seems to use pure tones in the range 200–1000 Hz. For the lowest of those frequencies human pitch resolution is not as good as for the higher ones. On the other hand almost any pitched musical sounds, including voice, include a broad spectrum of harmonic overtones which contribute to pitch recognition.
  3. In the test you hear two tones one after another. It is much easier to distinguish pitch difference of tones played together via beating.
  4. In the test you have 50% chance of a random success, so the best score in the test overestimates your capabilities.

To conclude, it's an interesting test, but I would be careful with drawing too hasty conclusions.

If you hear that you sing out of tune, that's likely due to your singing technique. This should improve with practice and learning good technique. I would definitely recommend finding a good teacher, who can help your individual development.

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